Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only three sides, the first of which was unreleased and presumably destroyed.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddlers Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Okeh 8554 – “Mooch” Richardson – 1928

Like old Seth Richard, “Mooch” Richardson is one of the countless blues musicians whose life and times are shrouded in obscurity.  He showed up for two sessions while the Okeh company was in Memphis, producing a series of outstanding country blues recordings, then disappeared back into obscurity once they were complete.

Perhaps the only really concrete fact known about “Mooch” is that he was really James Richardson.  It has been supposed based upon his “Helena Blues”, that he hailed from Helena, Arkansas.  Historian Paul Oliver, in his Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues, suggested that Richardson was a pianist, based apparently upon his two-part recording of “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues”, and implying that Richardson played piano on those recordings (though he in fact did not).  In February of 1928, Richardson appeared at two consecutive sessions in Memphis for Okeh, resulting in a total of nine recordings, six of which were released.  He was backed by Lonnie Johnson either on the latter session or both, accounts differ.  Whether or not Richardson was a resident of Memphis is another unknown.  Those two record dates serve as the only hard evidence of “Mooch” Richardson, whatever became of him afterward is anyone’s guess (unless they’ve got access to better information than me).

Okeh 8554 was recorded on February 13, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee.  There is question as to whether the guitar accompaniment is played by Richardson himself or by Lonnie Johnson; some sources state that Richardson accompanied himself on his first record date (which produced these two), and Johnson on his second, while others indicate that all of his recordings feature Johnson.  To my ear, while the guitar playing sounds a bit more “standard country blues” than Johnson’s usual style of playing—which tended to be heavy on bent notes and elaborate melodic single-string runs—it at the same time could indeed quite plausibly be him; certainly Johnson was a skilled enough musician to play in such a style.  The DAHR lists Lonnie Johnson on the first side and Richardson on the second, but both sound to be the same player, and if anything the “B” side sounds more like Johnson than the first.  The more I listen to it, the more I think it is Johnson.  It’s beautiful playing one way or the other.  Contributors to the 78 Quarterly suggested “twenty-five or more” extant copies, with this copy being one of the ones reported (at which time it was in the collection of George Paulus).

First up is the excellent “T and T Blues”, a mostly, if not entirely floating verse song drawing its name from the line “well it’s ‘T’ for Texas, lawd, I got a ‘T’ for Tennessee,” also heard in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”, and famously in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel”, as well as others, including Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”.

T and T Blues, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.

Another floating verse song, Richardson next sings “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1”.  You gotta buy another record if you want to hear part two.

“Mooch” Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.

Okeh 41283 – Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine – 1929

Sunny Clapp's band, during their tenure with Victor. From 1930 Victor catalog.

The Band O’Sunshine, during their tenure with Victor. From 1930 Victor catalog.

One of the top names in the territory band game was Sunny Clapp, who led bands all across the southeastern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  However, Clapp’s greatest claim to fame was his 1927 composition of “Girl of My Dreams”, a waltz song introduced by Blue Steele’s orchestra, that made a huge hit in that year, and continues to be sung to this day.  In spite of Clapp’s success in his day, surprisingly few details about his life are known today.

Charles Franklin “Sunny” Clapp (not “Sonny”, though frequently called such) was born on February 5, 1899 in either Battle Creek, Michigan or Galesburg, Illinois.  A trombonist like his contemporary Blue Steele, he was also skilled on saxophone and clarinet.  Clapp played with Ross Gorman’s band in 1926, with Blue Steele in 1927, Jimmy McHugh’s Bostonians and Slim Lamar’s Southerners in 1928 and ’29, and possibly Roy Wilson’s Georgia Crackers in 1931, alongside an impressive array of important jazzmen including Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, and Benny Goodman.  Brian Rust also suggested that he may have played tenor saxophone with the Six Brown Brothers in 1916, at the age of seventeen, though that seems rather dubious to say the least.  His composition “Girl of My Dreams” became a major hit in 1927. Around the end of 1928, Clapp organized a territory dance band of his own, dubbed his “Band o’ Sunshine”, which featured the talents of Texas cornetist Tom Howell and New Orleans clarinettist Sidney Arodin, and for one session, Hoagy Carmichael.  They recorded in San Antonio, Texas, Camden, New Jersey, and in New York, first for Okeh in 1929, then for Victor until July of 1931, with some of his later records appearing on the short-lived Timely Tunes label, and presumably also toured across the Texas region.  During the years of the Great Depression, Sunny Clapp disappeared from the recording industry, and whatever became of him thereafter is now lost to time.  All that is known of Sunny Clapp’s later life is that he died on December 9, 1962 in San Fernando, California.

Okeh 41283 was recorded June 20, 1929 in San Antonio, Texas by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.  The Band O’Sunshine consists of Bob Hutchingson on trumpet, Sunny Clapp on trombone and alto sax, Sidney Arodin on clarinet and alto sax, Mac McCracken on tenor sax, Dick Dickerson on baritone sax, Cliff Brewton on piano, Lew Bray on banjo, guitar, and violin, Francis Palmer on tuba, and Joe Hudson on drums.  Trumpet player Bob Huchingson provides the vocal on both sides.

On the first side, “they made her sweeter than sweetest of sweet things”, and made “A Bundle of Southern Sunshine”, played in a style quite reminiscent of Blue Steele’s, and capped off with Clapp himself exclaiming at the end, “let the sun shine.”  If this wasn’t their theme song, it should have been.

A Bundle of Southern Sunshine

A Bundle of Southern Sunshine, recorded June 20, 1929 by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.

The flip side, “I Found the Girl of My Dreams”, is not Clapp’s famous composition, but rather another of his compositions in the same vein.  In fact, if these two sides are anything to go by, he really loved to write songs about girls of one’s dreams.

I Found the Girl of My Dreams

I Found the Girl of My Dreams, recorded June 20, 1929 by Sunny Clapp and his Band O’Sunshine.

Okeh 4918 – King Oliver’s Jazz Band – 1923

Though unquestionably a truly legendary figure in the history of jazz, the legacy of Joe Oliver has been overshadowed that of his foremost disciple: Louis Armstrong.  But to some of us moldy figs, Joe Oliver is still king.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band around 1923.  From left to right: Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, and Bud Scott.  Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.

Joseph Nathan Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana and moved to New Orleans in his youth.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but December 19, 1881 is the most probable candidate; the same date in 1885, and May 11, 1885 have also been posited.  At first taking up the trombone, Oliver soon switched to cornet.  As a youth, Joe Oliver lost sight in his left eye in a fight, and often played with a derby hat tipped down over it.  He won the title “King” of New Orleans cornettists, which had earlier belonged to Buddy Bolden, from Freddie Keppard one night in 1916.  Oliver took up in Chicago in 1919 and founded his famous Creole Jazz Band, soon becoming a fixture in the Windy City.  In 1922, he sent for his young protégé Louis Armstrong, who was back home in New Orleans, to join him in the city.  King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band waxed their first phonograph record sides for the Starr Piano Company, makers of Gennett records, in their famous “shack by the track” in Richmond, Indiana on April 5, 1923.  They made a total of thirteen sides for Gennett before moving on to record fifteen more for Okeh, four for Columbia, and three for Paramount, before breaking up in 1924.  Thereafter, he recorded some landmark duets with Jelly Roll Morton for Marsh Labs in Chicago in 1925, and soon started a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, which began recording for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1926.  The Dixie Syncopators, which at various times included Luis Russell, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries, stuck together until the end of 1928, after which Russell took over the reins.  In 1927, at the height of his success, Oliver was offered the position of house bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, but he declined, hoping to hold out for more money.  Instead, the gig went to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.  On the side, Oliver also recorded occasionally as a sidemen with jazz bands such as Clarence Williams’ various orchestras and Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang‘s Gin Bottle Five, and with blues singers like “Texas” Alexander, Victoria Spivey, and Lizzie Miles.  Thanks in no small part to his penchant for sugar sandwiches washed down with a bucket of sugar water, Oliver by this time had developed gum disease, which limited his ability to play cornet.  Nonetheless, he signed with Victor in 1929 to record with a new orchestra, which often featured his nephew Dave Nelson, though his own involvement was frequently relegated to directing.  In 1931, Oliver went back to Brunswick for three final sessions, from which the last three titles were released on Vocalion under the pseudonym “Chocolate Dandies”, and he never recorded again.  He continued to tour with a band until money ran out, leaving him broke and stranded, in a Savannah, Georgia, where he found work as a janitor in a pool hall.  Joe Oliver died penniless of arteriosclerosis on April 10, 1938

Okeh 4918 was recorded June 23, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  King Oliver’s (Creole) Jazz Band consists of Joseph “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums.

A re-doing of the same tune King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band originally recorded for Gennett in April of 1923, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, composed by Oliver and Armstrong is certainly the group’s most famous efforts.  Oliver famous cornet solo beginning one minute and seventeen seconds into the recording was hugely influential to the genre, and frequently imitated in subsequent years.  After Louis Armstrong left the band, he took “Dipper Mouth” with him to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the piece was re-arranged by Don Redman and recorded as “Sugar Foot Stomp”.  Henderson kept the piece in his repertoire after Armstrong’s departure and recorded it at least thrice more.

Dipper Mouth Blues

Dipper Mouth Blues, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.

On the reverse of this disc is Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong’s composition: “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”.  Armstrong kept the tune in his repertoire and in later years performed it with his All-Stars.

Where Did You Stay Last Night?

Where Did You Stay Last Night?, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.